“The difference between a cyclist and a traveling bum is that the cyclist is wearing spandex, owns a $3,000 touring rig, has waterproof Ortlieb panniers, and keeps track of things like pace and miles and calories. A traveling bum has a 1990s era bike one frame size too small, duct tape panniers, is wearing carhartts, and is rolling down the sidewalk smoking a cigarette.” I think I wrote that on the outskirts of Kamloops.
“Hey, wait! I want to talk to you!”
I am about to blast through Lac La Hache; I only stopped to photograph a raven, but I slow down, and cross the street. The little old lady in the cowboy hat, hiking boots, and flowered dress beckons me over.
“I don’t want you getting too hot and thirsty,” she tells me, “I’m just in the room over on the end, here…”
I follow her; a life on the road taught me to always talk to strangers. Doesn’t matter if it’s Kurdistan or Cache Creek; Ninety percent of people who invite a traveling cyclist to stop just want to offer lunch, or something to drink, and she is definitely harmless. I’m not going to make Horsefly by nightfall. I knew that when I was having “breakfast” in 100 Mile House at one in the afternoon.
“Where are you going?” she asks.
“I’m going to 150 Mile House.”
I re-adjust one of the straps holding my pack to my home-made duct tape bicycle panniers. She looks at me like I am completely bonkers.
“Well, North. But I’ve always been curious about Horsefly and Likely, Barkerville, Wells, that area.”
“Oh, me too!”
Celeste is also a lifelong traveler, and spent her life hitchhiking around B.C. “But it’s so hard for me, with the birds, and my art supplies…” Three budgies and a small parakeet met me at the door of her unit. There are seeds all over the floor.
“The only water is through there, from the bathroom…”
The walls are covered in abstract-looking oil paintings of wings, feathers, bright swirls of carefully and expertly applied colour; there is a sense of movement, lightness, flight. She could easily sell a couple pieces in a coffee shop. There are books everywhere, all secondhand. A field guide to North American mushrooms. Anatomy for Artists. Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari. A half-finished table with carved swooping birds of prey sits in a pile of wood shavings, next to an antique lamp and a pile of picture frames. The framing supplies are stacked everywhere; there is barely room to walk to the bathroom.
I tell her about my trip, from Powell River to Horseshoe Bay, then on to Squamish, Pemberton, Bralorne, Lillooet, Cache Creek, Kamloops, Little Fort, Hundred Mile House. How my last bike trip came to an unexpected halt after a traffic accident in Istanbul, and I found myself back in Canada, alone and unemployed, and living in my parents’ basement long after my injuries had healed. How my Dad still had this bicycle I’d bought back in junior high, my very first one, and I had some duct tape, and tools, and time.
She tells me she came through Pemberton and Lillooet as well, years ago, as an artist. She tried living in Whistler, but it got too expensive. People were rude, dismissive. She was looking for another place to settle, sell some paintings, find the space to start her new project: upcycled furniture. Lac La Hache, it turned out, had no market for it.
“And the rent is so expensive everywhere. I wanted to try Horsefly but there is a mine there, so people with money take all the accommodation.”
I make a note to apply at the mine.
“Would you consider renting a U-Haul with me?” she asks. She was on her way, well, somewhere. Horsefly? Stewart? Dawson? Faro?
I tell her no, I will probably stop in Prince George for a while.
“I could drop you in Prince George,” she offers.
This will cost me about $400. I tell her that while I do not mind helping out a fellow traveler, I don’t require a U-Haul as everything I own fits on my back, or on the back of my bicycle.
Besides, I’m not looking for a ride. I try to tell her about my last trip, through Asia and the Middle East, my three years on the road. How traveling by bicycle is my default, and my passion. I do this whenever I am not working, because it makes me feel the most alive. Makes everything else not matter.
“You have friends in Prince George?” she asks, wondering why I would not just go straight there, get in a shelter, start collecting a welfare check, or live on my friend’s couch.
Phil and his guys were from Prince George. I intend to call them about a labour job when I get there, or a possible welding apprenticeship. Unless I decide to ride to Alaska. I might still do that.
I try to explain that it isn’t my objective to use social services, that I don’t need to. That I can afford the next year of exploring B.C. if nothing else works out. Serve coffee in a random country town, work in a campground or provincial park, WWOOF.
She still suggests that I go straight to Prince George, avoiding Horsefly, implying that I’d likely be run out of town, but would probably be treated more kindly than she was if for only the reason that I still look like I’m twenty-four, and young people are allowed to live like this.
I wonder how long I really can live like this, how fine the line is, between the bicycle tourist and the homeless person who travels by bicycle. If that line was my thirtieth birthday, back in Lillooet, celebrated with a case of beer in Phil’s campsite, or if that line was crossed when I returned to B.C., if I stopped being a traveller and started being an undesirable when it stopped being about exploring other cultures, when I stopped camping and living off of ramen noodles in Thailand and China and started doing it on the side of highway 97.
“Do you have any skills?”
I mention the welding course I took, and the coal mine out in Sparwood that I worked for, briefly, before it ever occurred to me to travel, back when Sparwood was the furthest I’d ever been from home, and she tells me she knows a guy. We grab her payphone card and head for the store.
A lifelong traveler, Celeste knows everyone. All the innkeepers and truckers, gardeners, businessmen, hirers of itinerant labourers, and caseworkers, from Saltspring to Skagway. Her friend, Pete, from Whitehorse, a place I’d always wanted to see, “owns a mining company.” I am a bit apprehensive of that phone call, figure I’ll have a better chance of impressing the guy if I simply show up with my resume, but she dials, and hands me the phone.
What will I say? That I’m some kid that some old lady picked up, looking for some sort of work? But he’s chatty, friendly. It turns out he doesn’t own a mining company; he owns and operates heavy equipment, and worked on a couple mining and exploration projects. We talk about my plans. I tell him something acceptable.
“Job, class 1 license, trucking job, Ford Ranger, house in a small town… but until then I’m a bicycle nomad, mostly because I enjoy cycling and think touring the North would be kind of epic.”
“So, you know how to drive?”
“Class 5 with airbrakes.”
“So, you can drive a rock truck?”
We talk about trucks, about how early the ice is breaking this year on the Yukon River up in Dawson, about some of the more remote and beautiful places he’s worked. And then one of us mentions Thailand. He just got back last week. I start telling stories about cycling, about the monkey that stole my bike mirror, and taunted me with it from the top of the ruins in Lopburi; about the best pad thai I ever tasted from a roadside shack in the middle of nowhere, the day I crashed my bike on a clay road in the rain, how I ate it, covered in mud from head to toe… as Celeste frantically signals that we should end this conversation; her calling card will run out, and she needs to find a ride to town. We exchange numbers and emails and I cheerfully hang up the phone. I like Pete, and Yukon Territory sounds amazing.
Celeste makes a call. Her ride to 100 Mile House for shopping makes another excuse. And I start thinking maybe she was right about Horsefly; a small town might not be the best place to live if one has crossed that line between adventure and desperation.
“You know, I also have some connections in Stewart.”
And she is relentlessly back on the payphone, trying to figure out what’s going on where. Hotspots for the travelling hippy, boom towns, festivals. But no one is offering her a ride, or even an invitation.
I remember the moment I thought I became an adult. That reckless day I spent, picnicking down by the river, trying to lose the cops, talking to local children and taking pictures of a flock of birds. The birds were pink, sort of like geese, but smaller. I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I knew it, but I decided to play innocent. At the time, I thought it would be cool, to say I was right there, in the border zone, between Turkey and Iran and Naxçivan, sitting on a large rock, having a picnic. When I saw the truck approach, I jammed the memory card from my camera into a loaf of bread, and put another one in, randomly. To this day I don’t know why I did it, what the consequence would have been if I’d been caught. All for what? Birds? Could have been killed, or spent the rest of my life in prison, for some birds. Birds. Or for some stupid unwritten challenge among travelers, real, hardcore, budget adventurers. Travellers, not tourists. Too inexperienced, in our early twenties, to realize there really is no difference. We are all just tourists, in the end.
They blindfolded me, and locked me in a cell. I felt the gun pressed to the back of my head. I thought that was it, and I was strangely composed at the time. I would never see my family again. The guard yelled, in Farsi, in Russian, in Turkish, Azeri, probably Armenian, as well, I wouldn’t have known.
“English,” I mumbled. “I only speak English.” Over and over.
Eventually, they took my credit card information. Emptied my wallet, and, still at gunpoint, drove me downtown to an internet cafe.
“How old are you?” That was the first thing Pete asked me.
His main concern, I suppose, was that I was yet another aging artist with no useful skills. But even now, at thirty, I can sense the pressure of conformity registering as disdain. There comes a point where intrepid becomes tragic. And I am nearly at that point, at not even half of Celeste’s age.
“Where are the pictures from the station?” the soldier demanded. “Where are the pictures from the river?”
I turned to the man that ran the internet cafe. Faked some sort of panic. This card did say it was corrupted, that there was a virus. There were only four pictures on it, all of them featuring the same mangy goat, by a beach somewhere, probably Pakistan.
“But, there should be more, all of my trip across Iran, and here, and…”
He refused to help. The soldiers laughed, and let me go. I had no information that would be of concern to anyone. I felt a sick sense of triumph in that moment, but it did not last.
I packed my bike. I didn’t even leave a note at the homestay. I left. Rode to the border, and crossed it. Kept on riding. Scared. I was on my way to Cappadocia. Ephesus. Olympos, to drink in a tree house beach-side bar with the unenlightened masses. Just another tourist. Where tourists were supposed to be.
I didn’t go out to look at the ruins, didn’t leave the hotel in Doğubeyazıt. Just called and cancelled my credit card, locked the door, and lay down on the bed, and cried. I forgot the loaf of bread in the soldier’s van. I did not care. I just wanted, for the first time in years, to go home. Be a millwright just like my Dad. Just like his Dad. We could drink at the Rodmay, all three of us, and talk about making paper, and trucks, and boats, and our kids, and that would be okay.
I remember meeting a man close to my age, twenty-two or twenty-three, at a bus stop in Leh a year earlier. We made fun of an older couple, wealthy, in their forties, as they tried to get their huge wheeled suitcases into a taxi. We would never be like that, we decided. Even when we were old. We would still ride our bikes, with our ragged backpacks, would still take public transit, covered in people, chickens, fabric samples for sale, dirt and sweat. We would never become tourists.
That Turkish hotel wasn’t really the moment I became an adult. I know that, now. Because I know that this adventure really will stop in Prince George. I will get into that apprenticeship, get the job, get an address, and buy a truck. I will start saving money, so I can someday own a cafe, or a hostel, where people like me, the way I used to be, can hang out and sell their work, meet other travellers, live cheaply. Because as much as I would love to be on the road forever, there comes a point when people stop giving you a chance, a hand with your flat tire, a new job opportunity, and start to give you a ride out of town.
There comes a point when the villagers look at your greying hair as you ride by, see that you are a woman all alone, and feel pity, instead of admiration. When your solitude, your blessed freedom, looks more like cursed loneliness. When they stop inviting you in for tea.
There comes a point when the camp cook and resort housekeeping and parks staff and tree planting and WWOOFing opportunities start to dry up, and you find yourself trapped in a lakeside motel on a lonely stretch of the 97, with only birds for company. With not enough to live on, but too much stuff to just walk out of town with.
Alison Peel creates thoroughly unlikeable characters, and usually kills them off in bizarre and graphic ways.